Sustainable and size: How does a digital-only publisher do it?

October 2, 2018
Category: Newsletters

Mining passion; Jemele Hill's return; journalism gets results with Kavanaugh; when directors do podcasts

Love animals? Love discovery? Love video? Ben Lerer's Group Nine is selling passion and expertise with The Dodo, NowThis, Thrillist and Seeker, but it's still not big enough.

At an industry conference Monday, Lerer sat on stage, complimenting BuzzFeed and Vice, two other digital-only pioneers that have hit speed bumps and have been friendly with platforms. Yet Lerer acknowledged that those two digital-only pioneers — and even his own company — must keep growing in an uncertain media environment.

Lerer spoke about the ways his company figures out how a story can provide revenue on Facebook, YouTube and its own sites. He suggested his company's skill with younger video-oriented audiences or passionate groups like animal lovers can translate to consulting fees, sponsored ads or a way to monetize a library of content. He said that his company can produce big Facebook Watch successes such as “Odd Couples,” about cross-species animal friendships, glueing viewers to their screens for 3- and 4-minute segments.

Every episode of "Odd Couples" has tens of millions of views, he said. In the world of Facebook, where people may spend two hours a day grazing, three minutes of "Odd Couples" may not seem like much, but Lerer said it's time "that they're not consuming other brands." 

Succeeding in this realm is hard, and the media world is still awaiting the digital-only product that gets big enough and sustains it. 

“You need to be good at a lot of things, and it’s so hard to be good at one thing,” Lerer told The Grill, an annual conference of digital leaders and Hollywood insiders from the business-of-Hollywood publication The Wrap. Lerer said he hopes to weather uncertainty over distribution and creation — “You don’t know who’s a buyer or a seller, including at the top of the food chain.”

With his verticals and their passionate audiences, platforms have been coming to him, attracted to learning how to succeed in three different forms of video production, with a specific age group or niche.

"We are playing a long game," he said.

Quick hits 

WHAT JOURNALISM CAN DO: We never would have had the Christine Blasey Ford hearing or an FBI investigation, however limited, without a free press, Margaret Sullivan writes. Journalists are under fire in the Kavanaugh confirmation, and Sullivan acknowledes they have faults. "They’re highly distractible. They’re guilty of tunnel vision, arrogance and groupthink," she writes. "Even so, they might be American democracy’s best hope at the moment."

JEMELE HILL IS BACK: The NABJ's journalist of the year, who departed ESPN after 12 years, has landed at The Atlantic as a staff writer. “You can’t talk about sports without talking about race, class, gender and politics," Hill said. "I want to explore the complications and discomforts with a publication that has a long history of supporting this kind of work.”

IN OTHER NEWS: The Atlantic announced a new crossword puzzle, a space The New Yorker has jumped into after subscription and impressive digital time numbers from The New York Times. We're "creating a cozy and reliable space" for the puzzle, writes editor Adrienne LaFrance.

WHEN DIRECTORS DO PODCASTS: What happens when you take five hot directors, the BBC World Service and Sundance? A very interesting five-episode podcast called Neighbourhood, narrated by Robert Redford, that launches today. We'll have more later on Neighbourhood, but episodes look at everything from a community garden in a diverse Massachusetts neighborhood to a land claim by Shinnecock Native Americans in an upscale Long Island enclave to Finland’s unique, self-deprecating national identity. Its first episode: Fake marriages for real estate. We'll have more on this in coming days. 

THE MEMORY HOUSE: How do you spur memories from people suffering from dementia? Studies from Ohio to the Netherlands have sought to recreate familiar places, sounds, even people. But this is a controversial practice. How much does it help? asks The New Yorker's Larissa MacFarquhar. 

BULKING UP: The Los Angeles Times is creating a Singapore bureau and reopening its Seoul bureau, part of a new investment in the paper by billionaire owner Patrick Soon-Shiong. Shashank Bengali and David Pierson will open the Singapore office; Victoria Kim, who spent her childhood on the Korean Peninsula (and referred to that past in this moving story), will shift from covering L.A.'s Koreatown to Seoul. Alice Su will join the Beijing bureau and Rebecca Bryant will become an assistant foreign/national editor, announced Mitchell Landsberg, the paper's veteran national/foreign editor.  We'll have more from the paper's new owner, Patrick Soon-Shiong, later in the week.

MORE JOBS: PBS NewsHour is adding more positions to its 15-member digital staff. Apply here. Jobs include senior director of digital strategy, digital senior video editor, podcast producer, digital video producer, digital associate producer (general assignment), digital associate producer (politics), interactive designer, junior developer, social media editor/producer.

WHY HE QUIT: At first, Daniel Sieberg, co-founder and eco-system growth lead at Civil, said he quit the cryptocurrency/blockchain journalism venture for his family. Then he issued an extraordinary "correction." 

MOVES: Longtime Facebook vet Adam Mosseri will take over Instagram following the departure of Instagram's co-founders from the social network. "Humbled and excited by the new role," Mosseri tweeted.

APOLOGY AND RETRACTION: That's what The Washington Times issued for an op-ed peddling a branch of a conspiracy theory involving slain DNC staffer Seth Rich. The retraction, which said the newspaper published statements it now knows to be false, came as part of a settlement with Aaron Rich, CNN's Oliver Darcy reported.

THE LAST WORD: Owned by the world's richest person, embarrassed by its union, The Washington Post has effectively tripled what the Washingtonian magazine called the paper's crummy 1 percent 401K match


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Have a good Tuesday.